By early 2018, New Cave Media, a Ukraine-based organization plans to launch an app called Aftermath VR, which uses photogrammetry–or the science of taking measurements from photos–to create 3D renderings of events like mass shootings or natural disasters with the sort of scope and scale that’s sometimes needed to make them comprehensible.
About the same time, Voxhop, a Cambridge, Massachusetts research group, will debut another reporting tool to share what happened a crime scene with immersive video that switches focus, allowing an event to be seen and narrated from multiple witness perspectives.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Republic and USA Today will have gone all-in on a VR-augmented reality hybrid: In the coming months, they’re expected to create a series of VR videos showing the proposed border wall as it begins going up between the U.S. and Mexico, including from a birds-eye view but, the imagery overlaid with relevant statistics about things like mounting costs, progress, and economic and cultural impacts.
That’s because all three of those groups, and eight more, has received between $15,000 and $30,0000 of a $285,000 pot put up by the Knight Foundation, Google News Lab, and The Online News Association as part of the Journalism 360 Challenge, a competition that focused on answering one question: “How might we experiment with immersive storytelling to advance the field of journalism?”
The Journalism 360 Challenge generated 812 submissions within the U.S. and several other countries including Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Norway, Germany, and the UK since it was announced in March. The winning answers showcase the boldest tech-enabled plans to help newsmakers craft better narratives, ensure more ethical storytelling, and democratize production for underrepresented or underfunded groups within industry. Entrants ranged from classic print and broadcast groups, to universities, and digital startups.
“I think the through line with these grant recipients is accessibility,” says challenge director Laura Hertzfeld in an email, who notes that projects like ‘The Wall” from Arizona Republic and USA Today “are aimed at creating new ways of experiencing content and making hard-to-reach places available to a wider audience.” The idea of accessibility applies in another way, too: Some projects at places like City University of New York and Northwestern are aimed at making it easier for those in the field to make and distribute VR-related content, including through smartphones.
That money comes with a fittingly tight deadline: All teams now have six to 12 months to make their concepts a true reality. They’re expected to share results by early 2018, in hopes that other groups might adopt what’s working.
The challenge builds on the mission of Journalism 360, a grant making, workshop and webinar driven industry organization that launched last September as something of a hub for journalists to develop and share the next wave of storytelling tools and practices. So far, the partners have pledged to put at last a half-million into various programs.
At its core, however, all of these efforts target journalism’s slipping credibility in an era where folks can dismiss anything as “fake news” if they disagree with it. Thanks to partisan politics and the wide array of online news sources with varying degrees of credibility, the many objective news outlets are losing reader engagement and trust. Part of the reason for that, of course, is long, vetted, smart news stories sometimes take effort to read and understand. Many of the Journalism 360 winners take aim at bridging that divide with virtual and augmented reality-based solutions.
To that end, another project at the University of British Columbia will test if “AI-generated Anonymity” in VR storytelling (think: pixelated people) is an effective or emotionally disconnecting way to present confidential sources. The Washington Post is exploring inherent audience bias through a smartphone app that tracks facial expression as people are exposed to things that may confirm or challenge their beliefs. “One of the most exciting things about Journalism 360 is that the rulebook on immersive storytelling hasn’t been written yet and I think our applicants used this climate to innovate,” adds Hertzfeld.
Sometimes sharing what’s news and why it matters isn’t enough. In the increasingly interactive age, people may want to see it to believe it. Until then, you can read more about the other winners here.